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Of Media and Messages
My first college class was “Intro to Mass Communications.” It was held in a large lecture hall at 8am on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. It was a required class and hosted a 100 or so freshmen (do they still use this genderist term?)
After the first week, the class dropped to 20 or so hardy souls, mostly commuters. The early hours were torturous for the first-weeks-away-from-home party hardy crowd.
It’s too bad. They could have stuck around and been tortured by the theories of Marshall McLuhan. McLuhan was a Canadian academic (oddly, he’s typically referred to that way…as if Canadian is a defining trait. Eh?) His most famous theory was detailed in the book “The Medium is the Massage.” (That is not a typo…that erroneous title was how it was published due to an error by the publisher. I feel their pain.) The links will explain in detail what he meant, but I’ll summarize from muscle memory: “You cannot separate content from how it is delivered; the mechanism of delivery changes how content is perceived.” For an 18 year old, understanding his message was nigh impossible due to the medium in which it was presented: an 8 am class, delivered by a hyperkinetic hippie professor.
Looking back 40 odd years later, McLuhan’s work (published in 1967) was prescient and far ahead of its time. At the time he conceived it we were hardly saturated in media or technology, as we are now. Mass media was comprised of a handful of TV stations, radio, a shrinking supply of newspapers, and magazines.
Marketers crave bigness and are willing to pay a ransom for the few opportunities to sell to a sizable crowd. And that is why the Super Bowl is still a prime advertising showcase. While today’s media is less “mass” than it once was, in terms of the ability to aggregate an audience to be marketed to (we’ve gone from broadcast to narrowcast) I believe that it has much more impact because we are saturated in it. Technology has enabled this.
For 18 years, Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management has conducted review of Super Bowl ads. This year, they noted, there were a few hits and many misses, judged by the school’s proprietary “evaluation framework.”
What did you think of the ads? Did they make you laugh? Cry? Did you even pay attention to them? Do you remember the brands or companies they represented? Do you think the companies got $7 million worth of impact?
I’m sure that each brand can rationalize or justify its investment in The Big Game. It certainly is nice to be able to afford taking a multi-million dollar shot. For smart marketers, it’s not a one-and-done: the real payoff is in leverage. And this is where Prof. McLuhan smiles and nods.
In many cases, the marketing no longer kicks off on game day. Most of the ads are now pre-released before the game, promoted and previewed on social media, and tied-in to numerous other marketing platforms. Over the years, they have morphed from one-offs to living forever in cyberspace. Even the famous Apple Super Bowl ad, which was aired only once (!) has found virtual eternal life being endlessly rehashed each year prior to the NFL championship game.
This makes me appreciate Dr. McLuhan and his seminal thinking anew. He foresaw how communications technology might lead to an electronically connected global citizenry, which could unshackle democratic ideas and push humanity progressively forward. He also predicted potentially darker outcomes: information wars, the surveillance state, the diminishing of privacy and an ever distracted citizenry. Double-plus ungood. Hey future…we’re here!
As we wrestle with the technological whirlwinds we have sown, McLuhan deserves a fresh pat on his pointy head for laying out the potential implications - good and bad - of our actions. Something I couldn’t have predicted giving him at 8 am, Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays back in the day.